Causing Nocturnal Havoc
– My RAF Journey Part 8
Causing Nocturnal Havoc in the RAF
It was a tremendous blessing to have had so many accomplished Southern Africans in the RAF system over the decades – Pat Pattle, John Nettleton, Sailor Malan, etc: mega aces – so I was not totally out of place. And, of course, Jannie Smuts started it all, so that was a mark of some legitimacy. However, this was in the early 80s and Anti-SA sentiment was rising rapidly. This antipathy would play a key part in a bizarre series of events to be encountered later in my journey.
Manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain were my favourite time at College. The 150-square-mile military zone, owned by the MoD, dates back to the late 19th century as a restricted live-firing expanse for ‘real-world’ operational exercises. Completely undeveloped, I felt a true sense of being in the untouched English countryside, as it would always have been. Untouched, save for the rumblings of tanks, whizzing artillery shells overhead and the rattling of high-velocity machine gun fire by the British army.
The primary purpose of our presence there was to develop leadership skills in the planning, navigation and execution of clandestine military objectives – mostly to blow up bridges and communications (attaching dud bombs) in the dead of night at specific times. You were assessed by the DS on your abilities to lead men and women under arduous circumstances. We adopted the SMEAQ (Situation, Mission, Execution, Any Questions) format in a series of rotating leader missions in each ‘Flight’ (Platoon equivalent) for 20 hours a day over two-week periods. It was beyond exhausting, but it thrilled me immensely. I felt like a naughty boy, legally authorised to cause nocturnal havoc (and the irony of engaging in similar waywardness with some of you – my partners in crime in Joburg suburbia less than a year before – did not go unnoticed).
One night alone in a trench at minus 10°C, I reflected on where this was all going. These escapades had nothing to do with aircraft, but I was beginning to become enthralled by the idea of transferring to the SAS. Toughing it out in physically and mentally challenging situations built a recognition of the fighter and a newly discovered warrior passion in me. It was a consideration I flirted with for years to come. While in a trench one early morning in a frozen state, I was trying to figure out what was so very different about this foreign world. Apart from the dull pain of temperatures I had never known before, there was complete and utter silence. I had hitherto never experienced such deafening stillness. Africa, with its endless bug-chirping, is never fully quiet. It was a seemingly trivial observation, but a profound insight at the time, nonetheless. This was a different world indeed.
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